Interview with SILAS WHITE, manager for Brian McKnight, former A&R for Justin Timberlake - Oct 29, 2007
“A lot of radio and PR people don’t have jobs now. They know how to get songs on the radio. Reach out to those guys.”
Silas White, who currently manages Top 10 US artist Brian McKnight, was also the A&R behind Grammy Award winner Justin Timberlake's debut album 'Justified' (Top 10 US).
From his early days as an artist who wanted to learn all about the business side of the industry, White has gathered invaluable experience while never losing his passion and joy of urban music.
He talks to HitQuarters about learning from the greats, about all the new ways the current industry climate offers to reach new people and avenues of revenue, and about the lack of artists who can actually write, produce or even sing properly.
How did you get started in the music business?
I started of as an artist, trying to get a record deal so that my music will get heard by millions. The management thing just kind of happened. It wasn’t something that I planned. I learned the business side because I didn’t want lawyers, agents and other people taking my money.
I wanted to know why things are how they are. So I spent a lot of time learning, reading and spending time with older guys that have been in the business forever to learn the game.
Who are you managing in the moment?
We have Brian McKnight, Wayne Brady, a country artist named Kelley Sheppard and Brian’s two sons Brian McKnight Junior and Nikolas McKnight.
What does your work involve?
For me management is about working with quality artists that will be around for 10-15 years, as opposed to being around for two years and having one hit record. We also do television shows at the moment and I was A&R for Justin Timberlake’s first solo, ‘Justified’.
There is not a day when I stop, physically. My basic day starts from 6.30am and it can run until two or three in the morning the next day. But I have a team of cats around me. Staff-wise, it’s probably around 18 people working here.
So when did you step into place with Brian McKnight?
I’m working with Brian for 11 years now. I started off from the bottom. First I was setting up all the stage gear. Then I became the stage manager. From that I ended up putting on his shows visually. So him and I got together and put together what his show is going to look like. From that I ended up becoming his tour manager and now just straight management.
I started from not being paid a dime. But that’s the best way to learn. By learning from the bottom I can tell an artist exactly what it will cost him for example to go out on tour. The agent takes this percentage, the management takes that percentage, and you’ve got to pay the crew. So you have to be very smart the way you tour and how to make your money.
Because a lot of artists don’t make money out of selling records. Maybe the record company gives you a 600,000$ advance but you owe them that money. You have to pay that back! How many artists sell out venues? It's mostly the big old names. The record is just a marketing tool.
What would you then consider to be a smart approach?
You have all sorts of vehicles that you didn’t have before. A lot of people don’t need record labels. Get creative with the MySpaces and YouTubes. If somebody tells you he wants to be your manager you have to make sure that he has some amount of contacts and some kind of vision. Play a club gig, sell your records there and maybe a record company will approach you then.
In the end of the day it’s just about getting the music out to the people. If I get my MySpace up and have between 6000 and 100,000 friends, those are the people who will buy my music. You can go to anybody and print your own CDs. Then go to a distributor from there. Put visuals up, shoot little videos and put them on your site.
But there is no one way to do it anymore. If a kid downloads your record he will want to go see you live. So with the touring you make your living. You can even sell much more CDs after a gig then in a store. In R&B and hip hop you just go to a club promoter, ask him if you can play three songs on a night that he puts on.
That’s how you get your exposure. Or another way: say you have 20,000 people on your Myspace. Knock that down to how many people are in LA, how many people from Chicago.
You sell your tickets, setup your performance, find a promoter who is buying some ads on the radio and sell your own CDs. You build up your own fan base. There are many more ways to reach the consumer nowadays.
You have to ask yourself how you sustain in this business, and find ways from the very beginning. I don’t sign people who cannot write and produce their own records. My country artist is a 19 year old girl that can write and produce her own stuff. I found her when she was 16.
It took us two years to develop it the way we wanted it. Develop her as a songwriter and let her tell her own stories. No one can tell your story better then yourself. I try to build the brand from there.
Brian McKnight has his record out, is on Broadway, has a radio show in southern California and as soon as he is ready, he is going to have his own late night television show. Because people know the brand, we take it and expand it.
But for upcoming artists it’s a vicious circle - you get no radio without a record label and so on…
You have to be hungry. You have to be told more no than yes. You’ve got to be very thick-skinned. Radio will only play Laffy Taffy 90,000 times and they are not playing a lot of anybody else’s songs.
But there are a lot of people who came from the radio and promotion side of the record industry that don’t have jobs now. They know how to get songs to the radio. So reach out to those guys. Go in front of people, go out to colleges, to high schools, perform there for free because that’s your fan base.
Cassie had over a million hits on her Myspace before Puffy found her. Because she makes so much noise on that thing. Or Tila Tequila, they just gave her a record deal. Use all the technology to your advantage. You just have to get to people. If you are willing to work, now it’s the best time.
What other advice would you give an upcoming artist?
If I can tell an upcoming artist anything it’s be creative, think outside the box, because the game has changed. Record companies are trying to catch up. The way people get their music is totally different.
Find your niche and go aggressively at it. Record companies nowadays come to you because they see that you are making money on your own. If you are doing good music it will get heard.
How did you develop Kelley Sheppard?
We tried to find different ways to get her out. She didn’t come out of Nashville but then realising that she had her own fan base, we went to high schools to perform, got her on different radio shows, set Myspace up, shot videos ourselves and now we can sell records from that. I try to get down to the source myself.
How did you find her?
There was a producer on the Alan Show that got sent a tape of her. He called me and said, you’ve got to see this girl. The first time I saw the videotape she was singing a song from a little karaoke machine and I just laughed about it.
We got her on the phone and asked her to sing for me. She sang for me and I thought, oh my god, she’s got it! I called Brian and arranged to see her. Then to develop her as a songwriter was the most important part. She got her songs right. We got a band together and started doing shows, wherever we could get one. I financed all of it.
Are you taking on new artists at the moment?
I’m always looking for real artists. It’s easy to find some guy who can halfway sing and run around and dance. But in the end of the day how many guys like that do you know that lasted? Sign a girl that is just pretty? No. I’m looking for somebody that can be a benchmark, that I can work with long time. They have to understand song structure and be able to write.
80% of the artists that are out right now can’t really sing to save their lives. They have been Pro-Tooled and Auto-Tuned up and they know it. They couldn’t grab a guitar and sing their song on key.
I would love to do an American Idol with artists that have record deals and watch them sing in front of people; with no engineer twisting knobs behind them. It wouldn’t hurt Alicia Keys…she can play and sing. But how many people can actually sit with guitar or at a piano and just play and still be entertaining? That’s rare.
How much time do you spend listening to new demos?
Everyday. I look at everything. It may be not right for me but maybe I know somebody that it’s right for. My best friend manages Earth Wind And Fire. We have a community of people here, and maybe there is one that understands it.
How did it come about that you worked Justin Timberlake’s album?
He knew Brian, then we became friends and ended up talking about doing his project together. He kind of went into the record company and said, I want this guy to do my record and we’ll finish it. That’s kind of what we did. I sat in the studio with him and Pharell and went through the whole process.
We were trying to achieve something like Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the wall’, which is probably the best record ever made. We were in a club the other night and they were playing all kinds of songs and by the end of the night the DJ is playing ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ and everybody goes crazy.
What is it that a record more than 20 years old sounds phonically better than every record that is out now? There is something that Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and those guys know that they ain’t telling anyone.
How was the process of working on that album like?
After all the songs were cut we sat down to decide what songs do we want on the album. I tell you, there is stuff cut, songs with Mariah Carey, that never came out. Amazing records but it wasn’t in the vibe that that record had to have. Coming out of the NSync stuff to what he is dong now.
People don’t realise the work that he puts in and the pressure that he was under to come out with a good record. Because at the same time, Nick Carter’s record didn’t do so well.
The good thing was, we didn’t have to go out and pick a producer because all the hot guys were already friends with him. But Pharell set the tone. I was with Justin from the beginning to the end to a point were we picked band members for him.
Are you looking for songs for your artists?
They are all writing their own stuff but we never turn down good songs…But I don’t really look for songs that the artists basically can do by themselves.
Would you sign an artist that is from outside the US?
Yeah, I’m actually looking at a European girl now, Natasha Thomas. Some producers that we work with passed it on. D’klay Productionz, some talented kids from Florida.
What would you say is a good way to step into the business right now?
Berry Gordy did it right. He had a couple of in-house guys, wrote and produced all the songs for the entire Motown roster. He started signing real people. Think about it. Temptations, Supremes, Marvin Gay, Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder…years and years later, even if I don’t agree with him in some terms, I’d mention Lou Pearlman, he copied that system.
Go back to Quincy Jones, Rick Rubin. Listen to the stuff they did and think about how to make your own stuff better. People ask about the first week sales figures as the whole industry is in trouble. It doesn’t matter if someone can stick around for long.
But you have to work the record until people get it. How come Babyface comes out with a record and only sells 13,000 on the first week? They say he is not hot anymore. That’s not true, it's somebody else's fault. I would buy a Babyface record. I just didn’t even know that it came out.
Or somebody in the inside is telling them they cannot be themselves anymore and tell them they have to work with such and such to keep themselves hot. That’s the curse. And it’s only like that in R&B and hip hop music that is so producer driven. You cannot tell Elton John, hey, go work with this producer otherwise you are not hot anymore.
Look at country music and compare it to R&B/hip hop. The country scene is much more consistent. Country artists will sell out stadiums over years and that’s because the music is more song-based. How many A&Rs are there like Ron Fair? He actually goes out there and finds a song. The funny story I always hear is, ‘you know this artist is cool but he hasn’t got the right song.’
Well isn’t that your job as an A&R? You cannot even say nowadays that a song is a hit, because a hit means how often you get it played on the radio. Today, to get a song on the radio doesn’t necessarily make it a great song. I can put the worst piece of shit on the radio and if you hear it enough times you start to sing it.
But there are amazing records out there. And in the end of the day, music is the only thing that can put you in that place and time in a certain state of mind. Reminding you when you met your first girl.
Reminding me when I heard NWA the first time; I wanted to ride off with my ride. Go and listen to Anthrax, you get ready to work out. Or a girl comes over and you put on a record you think you can get a little something to.
I love when music goes back to storytelling. Like Eminem, he was a storyteller. Listen to ‘Stan’. Or when Ice Cube’s ‘America’s Most Wanted’ came out...he was going on about the LA riots before they happened! Listen to Musiq Soulchild’s ‘Teach Me’…what a record!
What I love about hip hop is, you use samples from totally different genres. Think about Tone Loc’s ‘Wild thing’. They had to open themselves up musically and created something new.
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Interview by Jan Blumenrath